The Summer Solstice: Irelands Pagan Origins

Prior to Saint Patrick’s spread of Christianity to Ireland, pagan beliefs and practices reigned supreme. Celtic pagan festivals were held throughout the year, following the Sun’s cycles. The equinoxes in the spring and fall, as well as the shortest and longest days of the year, were all significant.

The sun reaches its highest position in the sky on the summer solstice, which is also the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. This astronomical turning point has been commemorated in Ireland for thousands of years as part of the island’s Celtic and pagan origins. It is usually observed around June 21st or 22nd. In some locations, the sun rises as early as 4 a.m. and does not set until 11 p.m.

This pivotal point in the Celtic calendar was significant to our ancestors, who regarded it as a season of flowering, blossoming, and wild abandon. Despite the fact that it signals the beginning of the sunset, we can assume they enjoyed the height of summer and the fresh earthy freedom in search of new delights before Harvest.

Where is the summer solstice celebrated in Ireland?

The summer solstice is one of Ireland’s ancient pagan calendar’s eight sacred days. Imbolc (St. Brigid’s Day), Bealtaine (May Day), and Samhain (Halloween)  are among the others. Hundreds of people congregate at sacred sites, such as the Hill of Tara in County Meath, every year on the summer solstice to commemorate the longest day of the year.

The Hill of Tara has been revered since the Neolithic era, which began about 4,000BC, with worshippers believing it to be a “homeplace” of the gods and a gateway to the land of endless pleasure. Stonehenge, a world heritage monument in Wiltshire, England, has a similar pagan background and attracts thousands of visitors each year on the summer solstice.

Unfortunately, due to Pandemic restrictions, the events at Tara Hill were not commemorated in their full glory this year. Although activities at the Hill of Tara in 2015 are portrayed in this YouTube video. In 2015, the celebration was led by local man, J. P. Fay, who carried a horned stick and was clothed in a gabardine cloak with a representation of Morrigu, the Celtic Goddess of War, on the back. Fay, who presented gifts of fruit, meat, wine, and spirits to the ancestors, remarked, “If you scratch the ground here, you are not too far away from our ancient pagan beliefs.”

A scattering of megalithic structures linked with the solar cycle can be found throughout Ireland. The passage tomb at Newgrange is the most renowned, as it is illuminated by the rising sun on the morning of the winter solstice. The Grange Stone Circle, the biggest in both Britain and Ireland, is located on the banks of Lough Gur in County Limerick and is the most significant monument aligned with the summer solstice. The Lough Gur Stone Circle was built around 2200 BC.

What is the Celtic name for the summer solstice?

Alban Hefin, which means “The Light of the Shore” or “Light of Summer”, is a Pagan Druidic term for the summer solstice. The term “shore” refers to the area along the coast where land, ocean, and sky collide. Pagans were captivated by the worlds that lay in between. Summer light refers to how the sun is cast as broad as it can possibly be.

The eight significant dates of the pagan calendar were thought to reflect the festivals of mythical pagan deities who were influential on those dates. The Oak King and the Holly King stories were presented to explain the summer and winter solstices.

The two kings engage in an eternal “war” that reflects the year’s seasonal cycles, including crop renewal and growth, as well as solar light and darkness. The Oak King is at his most potent during the hot days of the summer solstice. The Holly King regains power at the autumn equinox, then peaks at midwinter, when the Oak King is reborn, regaining control at the spring equinox, and continuing the succession.

The solstice is known in Irish as “Grianstad”, which means “sun-stop.” As the sun seems to rise and set at the same place on the horizon in the days preceding and after the solstice.

The significance of the summer solstice

The summer and winter solstices, in many respects, offer a unique experience that combines numerous characteristics of what makes Ireland so unique: its natural beauty, intriguing history, rich mythology and legends, and an overpowering sense of community. The people of Ireland have met in these locations to celebrate the solstice for thousands of years. Though the old religious rites are no longer practised, the solstices remain a significant day on the Irish calendar.

People continue to gather together, year after year, to journey back into history in a moment of beauty and celebration of this incredible natural occurrence, just as they did when the ancient cairns, stone circles, and standing stones were built.

Sean Barrett
Sean Barrett

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